I’ve just left a Zoom conference on Student Mental Health. It was all too triggering for me. I can’t deal with people making dumb allegations about ‘student experience’ that bear no relation to my lived reality. So I’m going to overshare and vent and get it all out here. Buckle up.
This post comes with a trigger warning for discussion of suicide, self-harming and severe depression.
My mental health, in common with most undiagnosed ‘high-functioning’ autistic women, is truly awful and still largely untreated.
I’ve struggled with recurrent depression since I was 16, but been repeatedly told by GPs not to worry about it and to take more warm baths.
At 19 I attempted suicide while a second year undergraduate.
I survived obviously but told no one and received no medical treatment of any kind. I didn’t believe my GP would care. In the first year I had repeatedly tried to tell my university-assigned personal tutor I was struggling but he just told me not to worry about it so I never bothered him again. About two weeks before my suicide attempt my flatmate suggested we have a flat-warming party – I thought this was a really bad idea, after all I was ‘that’ girl, the one who was the only girl who wasn’t invited to classmates’ parties, the one whose friends didn’t attend her parties. By my eighteenth birthday I was burned enough that while my parents wanted to hire a venue and throw me a big birthday party, I refused point blank so they took me to the fish and chips shop instead. Whoop-de-do!
So my flatmate’s ill-advised party went as poorly as I had expected. We had one guest. A gentleman I had not bothered to invite because he had stood me up three times in a row and, while my autistic traits mean I am slow on the uptake when it comes to affairs of the heart, even I knew what that meant. He downed a half of lager and left. My flatmate decided to get wasted and snog the bloke from upstairs. I spent the evening crying in the bathroom. It was my party after all and I was perfectly entitled to cry if I wanted to. My classmates clearly didn’t like me enough to want to spend time with me beyond what they were forced to endure. There was little point in telling them how miserable I felt.
Luckily, about a week after my suicide attempt I burnt myself cooking a ready-made pizza and discovered that physical pain is an effective short-term relief for emotional anguish. I self-harmed on a weekly basis for the rest of my undergraduate degree.
I told no one about the self-harming either. There was a lot of obvious stigmatisation of the ‘attention-seekers’ who self-harmed in the 1990s and I knew enough to know that going to the GP with a self-harming problem and an inability to maintain friendships was going to get me an automatic Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis, because women couldn’t have autism. I was certain I didn’t have BPD, but couldn’t get medical treatment for my self-harming problem without being lumbered with a diagnosis that didn’t fit me and was treated with contempt by medical professionals.
I wish I could say that self-harming is behind me forever, but I last self-harmed 7 months ago. The truth is it works. Neurotypicals don’t understand, but then they never do and rarely try.
It would be nice if I could express myself through words. But like many autistic people I have alexithymia – something that the few therapists the NHS has allowed me to see have quickly identified. I can do the big ones – I know anger and fear and love and happy and sad. But beyond that. Nothing. My therapists always get me to use a Wheel of Emotions and use my pre-frontal cortex to work out what emotion I am feeling via a process of elimination. It’s all very tiring and why I find talking to other women who only want to discuss their feelings so pointless. We might as well discuss the finer details of paperclips for all I care (paperclips are not a special interest of mine, just so you know).
Like most autistic people, male and female, I suffer from anxiety. I’ve suffered from panic attacks since I was 22. When I was younger they would be stabbing pains in my chest that would wake me up in the night. These days they are attacks of breathlessness that sound for all the world like I am having an asthma attack and frighten my children terribly. My son once tried to call an ambulance because he thought I was dying.
I’m not getting any better. Lots of these things will likely never leave me. Recurrent depression poisons the brain and makes it much more likely you will have repeated episodes. I am very likely to have dementia due to the brain shrinkage caused by my depression. The life expectancy of a non-intellectually disabled autistic person is about 20 years less than a similar neurotypical (i.e. 58 years). There isn’t a lot for me to positive about when I think about my long-term future.
Well that’s a downer, right, and this is why I have (almost) no friends.